The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?

The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.

Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis.  While we are all vulnerable to the virus and its harms, we often talk about vulnerable (or risk) groups, who are especially vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. Further, in some cases, such as a number of ethnic minorities, the heightened vulnerability of groups to the harms of Covid-19 is the product of existing inequalities and injustices. Biological vulnerability is therefore increased by other kinds of social vulnerability and disadvantage.

The pandemic has effectively acted as a painful reminder of our common vulnerability in these different dimensions. As Martha Fineman argues, despite its centrality to human nature, our shared vulnerability is often ignored by theorists and in policy-making. This background vulnerability is not necessarily morally problematic per se, but needs to be addressed when designing state institutions and public policies because a failure to do so is likely to result in disadvantage and injustice. In Fineman’s view, putting vulnerability centre stage can help to reconceptualise the duties of the state towards its citizens in the direction of more extensive and universalistic measures. This seems to be in line with the increasing popularity in the US and elsewhere of measures which guarantee a safety net for all, such as universal health care and universal basic income, as well as the revived support and recognition for institutions like the NHS and their workers.

Besides universalistic measures, according to a vulnerability perspective, governments also have a duty to address circumstantial vulnerabilities with specific and targeted policies, aimed at reducing them or mitigating their harmful effects. In this category, pathogenic vulnerabilities are of particular significance from the point of view of justice, as this type of heightened vulnerability originates from injustice. In this connection, the pandemic has also been a painful reminder of the very precarious socio-economic situation in which many members of our societies find themselves. Unregulated labour markets and precarious jobs devoid of rights and protections, lack of affordable and public housing, and pervasive racial and gender inequalities are some of the injustices that lead to heightened pathogenic vulnerabilities for particular groups and individuals, such as risk of unemployment, loss of housing, and the ability to meet basic needs. These vulnerabilities need to be responded to with policies that do not only mitigate their effects but also address their root causes. The origin of vulnerabilities also matters to the question of who has the duties to respond to them and how stringent these duties are. The state thus has more stringent duties to respond to pathogenic vulnerabilities, as they are the result of previous failures to meet its responsibilities towards particular groups of citizens.

If the concept of vulnerability seems promising for its ability to capture the risk of harm and different types of vulnerability and their interaction, identifying the vulnerabilities at play does not provide us with complete guidance as to how to respond to them. As in the case of human rights, questions arise as to which vulnerabilities to give priority to. Particularly difficult are cases in which a policy meant to address a particular type of vulnerability is likely to create new vulnerabilities or worsen existing ones. This is precisely the dilemma faced by governments deciding on whether to implement tougher restrictions and lockdowns, which ease both universal and circumstantial vulnerability to Covid-19 but worsen the economic vulnerability and the vulnerability to isolation of some citizens. As noted by MacKenzie, Rogers and Dodds, to address this issue one needs a nuanced understanding of different kinds and sources of vulnerability which captures its universal as well as particular dimension and the way they interact. This allows us to focus our attention in evaluating policies on whether they would create new vulnerabilities. Moreover, if we deem these policies nevertheless necessary, it can prompt us to implement other initiatives to mitigate these newly caused vulnerabilities.

In closing, an objection that is sometimes posed to the language of vulnerability, and especially the idea of vulnerable populations and groups, is that this label carries a stigma. Since the second wave of Covid-19 and related restrictions has hit Europe, the sense of solidarity and unity which had characterised the initial response to the pandemic seems to be withering away. In some cases, indifference and hostility towards the medically vulnerable groups for which some perceive to be making excessively burdensome and perhaps unfair sacrifices are emerging. People’s anger at many governments’ mismanagement of the crisis and its disproportionate medical, social and economic impact on the already disadvantaged is clearly legitimate. However, the hope is that this will not translate into anger towards the especially medically vulnerable, and the current crisis will lead us in the opposite direction instead. Having been confronted by our common vulnerability, we will come to strive for more attentive and caring societies, which address not only the vulnerabilities arising from our common embodied nature, but also those caused by unjust social and economic arrangements.

Costanza Porro

Costanza is Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Lancaster. She is also carrying out a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship which she started at MANCEPT, the Centre for Political Theory of the University of Manchester, in October 2022. Previously, she was postdoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Hamburg. She completed a PhD in Law at King’s College London in 2019. Her research interests lie at the intersection of moral philosophy, political and social philosophy, feminist philosophy and the philosophy of criminal punishment. Her current research explores how the fact of our nature as caring and needy beings shapes the way in which we should conceive an egalitarian society.